The Generalist’s Dilemma
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
Discovering why some of us operate this way and why it can be a superpower.
Written By: Kim WB
I am not convinced that people always use the term to describe others negatively, but personally, I’ve never taken it as a compliment. In fact, when this was direct feedback I received as the main reason for not promoting me at one point, I took it as a challenge. What was I putting out there to make it seem like I could maybe do a lot of things just fine but not one thing really well? It pissed me off. I knew I had a certain style and specialties that I was very much proud of, but for some reason, how that was coming across was holding me back– at least in the garden I had planted myself in at that time.
Once I did the work to reflect and understand, I’ve been on a mission to reveal and elevate the colorful and often quiet pieces of the beautiful mosaics we generalists tend to be.
Part of this was hearing from others and why generalists describe themselves as such.
Some were trying to communicate they are flexible, versatile, and experienced in multiple areas but ended up describing themselves as a catch-all professional. A “jack/jill/jules of all trades,” which never seemed to really do them justice.
Others described their experience almost as accidental, i.e., “I just fell into this.” I promise they didn’t. Wherever they are was often heavily influenced by a series of intentions that became decisions that led them to their place today. If that’s you, do me a favor and take time and try to find space to honor that. We’ll all be better for it, and I sure would be grateful to witness it.
Many slapped that label on themselves because there were experiences in their lives that led them to believe they didn’t have something special, and it came across to me almost like an apology.
And a select few decided to identify that way because it’s too damn scary to put yourself out there as really, really good at something and generalism felt cozy and warm.
Another part of this exploration was observing that generalists are often from a certain social profile. It just seemed to me that those who described themselves as generalists often are also those who are underrepresented in the workforce.
The bottom line is that unique activities and skills are indeed valued in professional spaces. But if you feel the weight of the generalist term on your shoulders, this doesn’t mean that you can’t create, accelerate, envision, ignite, or otherwise flourish in your work.
So many of us spend our time shushing the inner whispers of what author Elizabeth Gilbert describes as “big magic.” Often thanks to those with more power, we spend a lot of time convincing ourselves to share small, create safety, and challenge tentatively. We are asked to engineer our worlds and our ideas to be cautious and circumspect. This has created a bunch of people who are underappreciated and are made to feel replaceable. What kills me is that this label almost always undermines (at best) and silences (at worst) unique talents and achievements.
If this resonates with you, this is an invitation to mindfully reflect, dig into your strengths, and find the bravery to share that more broadly. It’s time for us to amplify and appreciate the cross-cutting contributions we can make.
Generally speaking, of course.
Meet the Author
Kim has over 10 years of experience building operations and systems in social impact spaces so great people can do good work even better.